In college, two twenty-somethings have a near-miss romantic moment, and in the years that follow they remain in each other’s lives as relationships change, work situations develop, and parents die in a will-they-won’t-they dance until, one day on a foreign holiday, they realize that they really do belong together. But their happiness is short lived — the wife dies in a car accident on a rainy stretch of road, and the husband becomes embittered and unable to cope without her in his life.
I could be describing David Nicholls’ One Day, which I read a few weeks ago and enjoyed muchly. But in this instance, I’m describing Jonathan Morris’ new Doctor Who novel, Touched by an Angel. Instead of One Day‘s Dex and Em, Touched by an Angel stars Mark and Bex. Instead of Dex working out how to live life without Em, it’s Mark getting zapped by a Weeping Angel and being forced to live at the periphery of his younger self’s life with Bex until he learns to let her go. Only there’s also a TARDIS, a Time Lord in a bow tie, and a list of dates and things to do that the time lost Mark must do to keep history from going wrong.
It’s not difficult, when reading Touched by an Angel to figure out what Morris’ high concept pitch must have been — “It’s One Day meets ‘Blink,’ with a little Time Traveler’s Wife and ‘The Big Bang’ thrown in for good measure.” Unfortunately, trying to compress two four-hundred page books and a Hugo Award-winning television episode plus another episode into a 240 page novel simply doesn’t work, and as a result Touched by an Angel is a deeply flawed and ultimately disappointing novel.
Among the book’s major problems, its characterizations are painfully shallow. Within Touched by an Angel‘s 240 pages, we have six major characters — besides the TARDIS trio, we have Rebecca (who also goes by Bex and Becky at different points in her life) and two versions of Mark (the older of which also goes by Harold). Nicholls in One Day had 400 pages to develop just two characters — Dex and Em — and also bring to life the specific times and places in which they live. Morris has more characters to deal with, plus additional plot complications (like time travel and the Weeping Angels), and as a result the characters don’t have the narrative room to develop beyond surface characteristics. Of the major characters, Mark is the better developed of the two, simply because he’s seen at two different stages — as himself, living his life the first time, and as Harold, reliving his life after being stranded in the past by the Angels. Rebecca never comes alive; I don’t think we even learn what her job is, and we certainly don’t learn what her interests are. The only facts about Rebecca that we learn are that Mark loves her and that she’s a terrible driver.
As for the characterizations of the TARDIS regulars, those are more variable. Amy and Rory are generally recognizeable as themselves. The Doctor, however, Morris fails to capture at all. Morris writes the eleventh Doctor as the tenth; it’s easier to read this book and imagine it takes place in an alternate universe where David Tennant’s Doctor travels with Amy Pond and Rory Williams than it is to picture Matt Smith at the TARDIS console in Touched by an Angel.
This leads to a related problem — Touched by an Angel isn’t really a Doctor Who novel. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s riffing on One Day to the point where I don’t feel wrong in calling it “One Day fanfic.” I mean that in the sense that the Doctor is not an actor in the story. The Doctor isn’t driving the plot. The Doctor isn’t solving the problem. The Doctor isn’t making decisions. The Doctor is a minor character in his own book. He’s there to advise Mark on what to do — or not to do — but all the book’s major decisions, save for the final defeat of the Weeping Angels, are undertaken by Mark.
The final defeat of the Angels, by the way, is so absurdly improbable that I still can’t believe it. I can’t even visualize how it’s supposed to work. It’s like the defeat of the Angels in “Blink,” amped up a thousand times. I tend to think the use of the Angels in Touched by an Angel avoids the “going to the well too often” problem that beset the Borg in Star Trek that writer James Bow worries about (what they’re up to is conceptual cool), but there’s still a certain “Been there, done that” quality to their appearance here.
What’s unfortunate is that the concept for Touched by an Angel isn’t bad. The back cover blurb, with its ominous line — “this time the Weeping Angels are using history itself as a weapon” — suggests a darker, more dangerous story than we get. However, the Doctor, the TARDIS, the Weeping Angels themselves, they’re all Plot MacGuffins or walking plot points to push Mark on his long and lonely road to emotional recovery from his wife’s death in a car accident. There’s never any sense of jeopardy to the Weeping Angels and their actions.
I read the last hundred pages honestly not caring how the book turned out. Morris is capable of so much better than this (see Anachrophobia for the EDA line or Bloodtide for Big Finish), but in much the same way that his DWM comic strip “The Professor, the Queen, and the Bookshop” was Morris doing a pastiche of C.S. Lewis as filtered through Doctor Who, Touched by an Angel is Morris doing a pastiche of David Nicholls’ One Day. Unfortunately, because Morris must also fit Doctor Who elements into the book, he never gets past the pastiche to do something truly original. Touched by an Angel spends so much time trying to be something else that it never figures out how to be itself.
Touched by an Angel is ultimately disappointing. Not only was the basic story told better and more evocatively by David Nicholls, but Paul Cornell’s Doctor Who short story “The Hopes and Fears of all the Years” covers similar thematic ground better in the span of ten pages. Better in its concept than its execution, Touched by an Angel is one of the weakest Doctor Who novels in recent memory.